The Voluntary Militia Period 1848-1866

Following disbandment in 1848, many men from the former Queen’s Rangers continued to serve in sedentary militia flank and rifle companies across York County. In 1854, however, following the outbreak of the Crimean War, there was again a need to raise active troops to defend the province of Canada. British forces had been withdrawn to fight abroad, necessitating that the garrisons at Toronto, Kingston, Niagara, and Amherstburg be replaced. The Militia Act of 1855 set out to raise an active force of Canadian militia to occupy those posts. This force would consist of cavalry, artillery, rifles, infantry, naval and marine companies, and later a company of engineers. Soldiers were to be paid and trained a minimum of ten days per year, and to be provided with weapons and equipment. They would have to supply or purchase their own uniforms. Records indicate that the size of this force was initially small, hovering around 5000 men between 1856-58. By 1861, however, this number had risen to 12,000, and two years later had over doubled to 25,000.

In 1862-63, the voluntary militia had grown so large that existing groups were gazetted into independent militia companies. Those in the 5th Military District, encompassing York, Peel and Simcoe, were formed into the following companies:

The Scarborough Rifle Company (Sept. 4th, 1862)

Included Capt. W H. Norris, 4 officers and 45 men.

The Aurora Infantry Company (Dec, 11th, 1862)

Included Capt. Seth Ashton, Capt. Peel, 3 officers and 30 men.

The Lloydtown Infantry Company (Dec. 19th, 1862)

Included Capt. Edward Ball, Capt. Armstrong and 25 men.

The King Infantry Company (Jan. 23rd, 1863)

Included Capt. Geo. Lea Garden, 1 officer and 40 men.

A number of the men who served in these companies were descendants of former Rangers.

In November of 1865, in response to the growing Fenian threat, militia companies were called up and stationed at Toronto, Hamilton, and Port Hope. Canadian authorities feared that the Irish nationalist Fenians, who were primarily based in the United States, would launch raids into Canada. In March of 1866, in anticipation of a possible attack on St. Patrick’s Day, 10,000 militiamen were called out to Port Colborne and placed under arms for a period of three weeks. No significant action would come, however, until June.

On May 31st, 1866, roughly eight-hundred Fenian troops under the command of John O’Neill crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo. They occupied the undefended town of Fort Erie without resistance. From there, O’Neill’s men pushed inward toward Port Colborne and the Welland Canal, the only navigable naval passage between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. The volunteer militia companies were immediately called out in response, and roughly 22,000 men were sent by train to St. Catharines and Port Colborne. A hasty departure unfortunately left them poorly equipped. Historian Stewart Bull relates that, “no rations had been issued or haversacks to carry them in; no arrangements had been made for shelter; neither tents nor blankets had been provided. And the tactical orders of the commanders of these volunteer militia units were confused and misunderstood.” In addition, ammunition was scarce, and few men had experience live-firing their rifles. The Fenian soldiers on the other hand, were well-armed and well-supplied veterans of the Civil War. Though the Canadian militia companies had enthusiastically responded to the call of duty, they were ill-prepared for the coming battle.

On the night of June 1st, Fenian forces marched to Ridgeway, near Port Colborne, and occupied a strategic ridge in an effort to ambush approaching Canadian forces. Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Booker took command of the 2nd Battalion Queen’s Own Rifles, the 13th Battalion Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, and several companies of militia stationed at Port Colborne (including the Scarborough, Aurora, Lloydtown, and King companies), and against orders marched towards the Fenian position. In a brief engagement on June 2nd, the Fenian forces under Col. O’Neill prevailed. As the Canadians retreated, the Fenians briefly occupied the town of Ridgeway. Knowing he would eventually be overwhelmed, O’Neill withdrew his forces to Fort Erie. On the night of the 2nd, he attempted to lead his men back across the Niagara River, where they were arrested by the U.S. Navy. Back on the Canadian shore, militia forces remained at Fort Erie and in the surrounding area for the next few weeks. The last unit was ordered home on June 21st.

Despite their defeat at Ridgeway, the Canadians had eventually prevailed, and the civilian population expressed pride in their volunteer soldiers for so actively responding to the call of duty. The people of Aurora presented their Aurora Infantry Company with a silver bugle and a flag, “as a small expression of universal satisfaction with which they regarded their meritorious conduct during the recent trying crisis.” Subsequent military courts of inquiry, however, were not as kind. They concluded that the frontline troops panicked and broke, and that the blame lay with them rather than their commander who had disobeyed orders, or the government who had failed to adequately train and supply them. Veterans of the battle consequently received little official recognition. Years later, on June 2nd, 1890, they held a protest at Queen’s Park, laying flowers at the foot of the Canadian Volunteers Monument. It would be another 10 years, however, before the Canadian government officially issued a Fenian Raid medal, and gave land grants to surviving veterans.

Coming out of the Fenian crisis, a number of reforms were made to the militia system. Most notably, a standing camp was established on high ground overlooking St. Catharines and west of Thorold, where militia companies could go to train and practice working as a battalion under regular army officers. They were rotated-in for ten days at a time. In September of 1866, the York Companies – including the Bradford Company commanded by Lieut. Wilson, the Aurora Company commanded by Major Peel, the Newmarket Company commanded by Captain Boultbee, the King Company commanded by Captain Garden, the Lloydtown Company commanded by Captain Armstrong, and the Scarborough Rifle Company commanded by Captain Taylor – had their turn. It was also at this time, via a Militia General Order dated September 14th, that the Scarborough Rifles, along with the Aurora, Lloydtown, King, and Newmarket Infantry Companies were all incorporated into the 12th York Battalion of Infantry, headquartered at Aurora. Their formation was announced a few days later on the 17th, in the “Daily Leader” newspaper, while the men were encamped at the central training ground.

Officers of the new 12th York Battalion included Captain W.D. Jarvis, son of Sheriff William Botsford Jarvis (and grandson of Queen’s Ranger Stephen Jarvis), from the Queen’s Own Rifles to serve as Lieutenant-Colonel, and Captain W.H. Norris of the Scarborough Company and Captain Ernest Peel from the Aurora Company to be Majors. In this way, these voluntary militia companies connected the legacy of Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers (and Rogers’ Rangers before them) to the modern regiment. Men from the York region (of the Jarvis family in particular) continuously served in defence of the province from its Upper Canadian origins in 1791, through to Confederation in 1867. On May 10th, 1872, this legacy was recognized as the designation “or York Rangers” was added to the unit’s title, and the motto “Celer et Audax” was authorized. The motto acknowledged the unit’s Loyalist roots, specifically the Royal American Regiment – the first regiment raised by the British in North America – who had originally employed it.

<== THE QUEEN’S RANGERS 1837-1838

THE 12TH YORK RANGERS 1866-1913 ==>